The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection

September 21, 2013–January 5, 2014

Two-sided gold pendant surrounded by seed pearls,

Two-sided gold pendant surrounded by seed pearls, England, ca. 1830. 1 7/8" (with hanger) x 1 3/8" x 1/4". Collection of Dr. and Mrs. David Skier.

On loan from the Birmingham Museum of Art, this unique exhibition features hand-painted portraits of individual eyes. The trend for this art form, fragile watercolors on tiny pieces of ivory ensconced in myriad jewelry forms, dates back to the late 18th century and began with a love story.


In 1784, Britain’s young Prince of Wales found himself in a clandestine relationship with Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father, King George III. Nevertheless, he pursued her. She rejected the Prince’s advances; but following his suicide attempt, meant to demonstrate his great despair, Mrs. Fitzherbert accepted his proposal of marriage. A day later, full of doubt and regret, she fled to the Continent and remained there a year. Hoping the Prince’s feelings would subside, she learned that the distance between them only served to strengthen his love and resolve. The Prince wrote to Mrs. Fitzherbert with a second proposal of marriage sending along with it not an engagement ring but rather a small portrait of his own eye. His intimate token of affection had its intended effect. She returned, and the two wed in a secret ceremony on December 15, 1785. Later she would commission Richard Cosway, the same miniature portraitist that the Prince had engaged, to paint for her new husband a tiny portrait of her eye. Thus began an aristrocratic trend for exchanging eye portraits, a trend that would last for several decades.


Finely crafted in miniature and set in exquisite forms, both decorative and functional, each tiny eye portrait harbors enchanting stories of secret romance and love lost. Lavishly adorned with jewels, the portraits set into brooches, rings, lockets, pendants, small boxes, toothpick cases, and other tiny pieces date primarily from late 18th- through early 19th-century England and are few in number. The collection the Skiers have assembled is considered the largest of its kind, with only some 1,000 suspected to exist worldwide.


“How poignant it is that each eye represents an actual person and an actual story of a long-ago love or bereavement, now lost to the passage of time,” says Mrs. Skier. Indeed, while of a few of the eyes in the Skier collection can be identified, the secret history behind many of them can only be imagined. Even in their own time, the eye portraits might only be recognized by persons intimately familiar with one another. Therein perhaps is the feature that accounts most for their appeal and intrigue. 


Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, the William C. Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, organized The Look of Love with the participation of collectors Dr. David and Mrs. Nan Skier of Birmingham.


This loaned exhibition will be on display in the East Gallery. All exhibitions are included with admission and are free to Winterthur Members.


Sponsored by Dr. Richard C. Weiss and Dr. Sandra R. Harmon-Weiss, with additional assistance from Pam and Jim Alexander, Laurel Riegel, and Coleman and Susan Townsend.

The exhibition's companion book, The Look of Love; Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection is available for purchase online and in the Winterthur Bookstore.

Winterthur Looks at Love

eye tattoo

Eye Tattoo, Bang Bang Tattoos, New York, NY 2013. Instagram Photo/Justin Bieber

Don’t miss this charming complement to The Look of Love showcasing a selection of historic and modern eye and portrait miniatures that highlight a wide range of styles—from pendants to cuff links and even eye tattoos! These pieces may be tiny in size, but they are rich in meaning, hence their enduring appeal from the 1700s to today. Featured in this “miniature” exhibition are two portrait miniatures and two new oil portraits from the Winterthur collection as well as other objects from private collectors. Located on the 2nd floor, East Lounge, adjacent to The Look of Love exhibition. 

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